Saturday, November 17, 2007

Why devx needs a better print function

I like to read technology articles during my daily commute. And since the train is too crowded for a laptop and I don't have an ebook reader (yet), I still print articles that seem interesting to read during the train ride.

A lot of web sites still have a Print button. What happens when you click that button differs from site to site, but it roughly falls into these categories:

  • Show all pages at once
    Many sites break articles into multiple pages. The print version of the article puts all of these pages together again, to allow them to be printed in one go.
  • Re-layout the site to print better
    Tables seem to be notoriously difficult to print. That's why many sites revert to a table-less layout in their print version
  • Remove navigation elements
    Global and local navigation elements are pretty useless on paper. So they're removed from the print layout.
  • Images - click to see full size version
    Some graphics-intensive sites show images of reduced size in their normal view, showing the full version in a popup when you click some link. Since you can't click a link in the Print version, the full size images should always be shown there.
These are some things that I wish more site would do:
  • Replace animated adds by text adds
    I don't mind showing adds next to good content. I do mind the ignorance of including animated adds in a print layout. I'm pretty sure no printer will deal with these in a useful way.
  • Use images that are more appropriate for B&W
    Most people still use B&W printers. So it would be nice if sites allowed the option of replacing their colored images with version that are more suited to printing on a B&W printer.
    A common example of this are mostly-black screenshots like from command prompts/shell windows. When printed these really eat through a toner at high speed. It would be nice if a site would allow me to replace those images with ones that are mostly white, making my toner last longer.
That's a pretty long list. And most of these things can actually be accomplished on a website without needing a special print version of the articles. Hiding navigation elements, showing non-animated adds and other layout tricks on a print version can easily be accomplished using CSS media types. And why do most sites still use tables for their layouts? Just remove those tables and you have one less difference between the screen and the print version. And I also think it would make sense to show all content on a single page.

So that actually leaves just one reason for having a Print button: showing full sized images inline. And that finally brings us to the title of the article: the print function of DevX.

DevX is a nice development site that sometimes has very interesting content. And one of the reasons their content is good is that they usually include quite a lot of screenshots and diagrams. This just makes their articles so much easier to follow. On screen the articles show the images at a reduced size. Which makes sense, because the images are often full screen screenshots which would otherwise leave hardly any room for text.

But if you've ever printed an article from you've probably noticed their print versions still only show the images with a reduced size. They're not replaced by the full-resolution version. They're not printed in a larger box. They're not even added at the end of the article, like appendices. The images in the print version are exactly the same as in the screen version: reduced to sometimes a tenth of the the original size.

So whenever I find an article in DevX that I want to read on the train, I start up Word and open the print version in there. Then I remove all tables, because they also don't print very well from Word. Then I go back to the browser and open each image, copy it to the clipboard, paste it in Word and then remove the useless downsized version.

And although I normally like the high volume of screenshots that DevX uses in their articles, this is actually a reason why I'd like them to use less screenshots and more text. Because this conversion to Word is not just a lot of mindless work; I sometimes forget to do it and print a DevX article as is. And by the time I realize what I've done, I'm already on the train. So I do my best and squint my eyes trying to read the text in there.

So there you have it: please DevX fix your @$@%&^# Print function.

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